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The 'Impossible Dream' sets sail in Maine, wheelchairs welcomed

Impossible Dream is the first catamaran in the world designed to be fully wheelchair-accessible. It sails from FL to ME giving people with disabilities sail rides.

Being able to step on a boat is something most people take for granted but on the Impossible Dream - wheels are not only no problem, they are welcome. 

Deborah Mellen is the founder of Impossible Dream, not only the name of her boat but also the non-profit that sails the eastern seaboard from Miami to Maine every summer, taking people with disabilities on the open ocean. Mellen herself was in a car accident 30 years ago and while it may have denied her the use of her legs, she says it was sailing that changed her. 

The catamaran is the first boat of its kind, designed from the bottom up to be a wheelchair accessible vessel. And not just for passengers in wheelchairs but crew as well. The catamaran is outfitted with handles at chair height around the entire boat, extra-wide walkways, stairs that convert into a lift to reach below the deck and the wheel of the ship designed for chairs. Since 2015, the Impossible Dream and its crew have been dreams possible come with free sailing excursions for people in chairs and with other disabilities supported solely on donations and sponsors. 

People like 38-year-old Jessica Russell who sailed on an August afternoon for three hours with a dozen others. 

"It's probably a once in a lifetime experience," Russell says who was in a car accident 20 years ago. 

"Anytime I have the opportunity to do something like this where it is made from the ground up for people with disabilities I try to take advantage of it because that hardly ever happens," Russell says whether on land or sea life is simply not designed for people in wheelchairs. 

The Adaptive Outdoor Education Center partnered with Impossible Dream to fill the boat on Friday, August 2. Russell has been on boats before but never one where she felt safe until now. She loves the water but admits it is very hard for people in wheelchairs to find access to it. 

"The problem is that people with disabilities are marginalized from the boating community – from most communities honestly," Deborah Mellen is hoping to change that one sail at a time. Mellen didn't begin sailing until after her accident and says her life really started to change when she not only realized she could sail but that she wanted to share the gift with everyone. 

Over the last five years Impossible Dream has given more than a thousand people with disabilities FREE sailing experiences as they have traveled close to 40,000 miles.   

"I think is it's important for everybody to be out on the water – to feel the freedom that it gives you, to clear your mind, and just to feel it -- to feel the wind," Mellen says.  

Derek O'Brian was partially paralyzed in a diving accident almost ten years ago. Even though his accident was water, O'Brian says he hasn't let that stop him from enjoying the it. 

"I love sailing. The freedom the wind in your hair there is no better feeling esp on a day like today," O'Brian says.  

The boat also offers guest crew spots to sailors like David McCauley who dove into a pool that didn't have enough water. Now he spends his summer days and nights on the catamaran as part of the crew. 

"It is typically a highlight of my year," says the 43-year-old Miami artist.  

McCauley says the crew really believes in the healing ability of sailing and being out on the water but at some point the sailing is actually an afterthought. He says it is about the relationships that are formed overtime or briefly during a three hour sail when people in similar life experiences can let their guards down and be together, learning from each other.

"You might have someone who was injured a month ago, sitting with someone for ten years and they're talking about here's a cool little trick to put my shoes on," says McCauley. 

And its not just about making dreams possible through sailing, Mellen says it is about changing the norm of what people living with disabilites can do when things are created and designed in a universal way. 

"Seeing us on the bow of a boat in wheelchairs, people's perceptions are changed. And they see something that they never see, and then they start to think."